Vanessa-Mae Is IT!


With Strings Attached

The Independent

Vanessa-Mae. Youngest person ever to attend the Royal College of Music. Youngest person ever to record the Beethoven and Tchaikovsky violin concertos. The fastest-selling classical artist ever. Plus an alluring nymphet, to boot. Clinging, white, transparent dresses. Pink hot pants. Fashion shoots for Tatler and Vogue. Still, I refuse to be intimidated. I can do hot pants. I can even do hot pants with pop-socks, which is quite a wow, apparently. They even featured me once in Crime Weekly, under the headline: "It's a crime, whichever way you look at it," which was nice. And I'm known to be quite musical, too. Indeed, as I tell her straight off, my version of "Chopsticks" at the piano truly speaks to people. Often, even, they speak back. "Pack it in!" they cry. She says: "We often discuss the 'Chopsticks' technique in my family."

"And I can do 'Three Blind Mice'! With one finger!"

"How... nice." she says.

I was going to tell her that I'm working on "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" — with two fingers — but don't want to show off. She is fantastically impressed already, I think.

We meet at the smart Milestone Hotel on Kensington High Street. She arrives in a big, fat chauffeured Jag even though she lives just down the road with her mother and stepfather. She is 30 minutes late. She is not alone. She has her PR man and make-up artist with her. "Does the make-up artist go everywhere with her?" I ask the PR man. "Yes," he replies happily. I suspect, already, that I am going to be out Jewish-princessed here. Can you cook, Vanessa? "When in London, I usually go out to eat." (What does a Jewish wife make for dinner? Reservations! Hah!) "But last night," she continues, "I did microwave some Tesco pasta."

She is now 21, yet still magnificently doll-like. She is wearing a ruffled red top so itsy-bitsy it looks like it came out of some kind of Barbie-goes-mad-at-DKNY pack. Is it DKNY? "I think so." Her trousers are frighteningly chic hipsters – also Barbie-sized — "from a boutique in Switzerland". The circumference of her waist is probably smaller than one of my thighs. On a good day. (On a bad day, nothing is smaller than one of my thighs, not even a traffic bollard). She is very, very beautiful, with absolutely clear skin and a marvellously silky black curtain of hair.

I wasn't, in fact, that excited about meeting her. She is said to be quite cold. She is said to be aloof. She is said "to have the poise and hauteur of a senior Tiffany shop assistant". She is said, even, to have just sacked her mother! True? "No!" OK, her mother, Pamela — who has driven Vanessa's career since Vanessa was three — will no longer be her manager. The famed Mel Bush will. But, that said, "it has been a very healthy, organic thing. From 18, my mother left me more and more to handle myself, to gain some professional independence. It was a gradual progression. 'Sack' is a terrible word." I say I am most disappointed to hear this. I was going to ask for tips on how to sack my own mother. OK, she hasn't driven my career, but she has driven me pretty mad over the years. "I wouldn't sack anyone!" Vanessa cries.

Anyway, I'd expected her to be like one of those tennis players who has been on the circuit since the age of five, and hasn't really developed in any sense, except on the tennis court. And there is something quite arrested about her. I don't know if she does that softtoy thing. You know, all those prodigies who end up with bedrooms stuffed with teddies, because they've never had time to form proper relationships. But I do know she does the pet thing, which might be much the same. She currently has three dogs, a number of fish, a chameleon and a cockatoo called Continuity Kay.

This is a new cockatoo, bought for her by her grandmother for her 20th birthday. She had a cockatoo before, but it escaped out of the window when she was 16, just two days before she was due to record her first album. She was heartbroken, naturally, "but it was a professional milestone, because I learned that the show had to go on". I wonder if her pets are dressed in Gucci collars and little Prada jackets and all that. They are not, she says. "I'm not saying I know what a pint of milk costs, but my spending isn't that excessive."

I find her quite friendly, actually. OK, she can, at times, lapse into formidably meaningless marketing speak, when everything is talked about in terms of "goals" and "priorities" and "focusing". But we have a nice chat about her Chinese grandmother, who lives with Vanessa, too. "She's 70 in August, but very rock'n'roll. She likes to drink tequila and vodka with my band." She doesn't mind that I laugh at her chic hipsters, the waistband an intricate looping of holes. "Honestly, girl, what are they paying you?" But she has a boyfriend now. Your first? "Yes. I wasn't very interested before." He is Lionel Catelon, son of the mayor of the French ski resort of Val d'Isère. "I am in love," she says, "but don't want to talk about it." She doesn't seem that aloof. She might even have had sex.

I know she generates a great deal of mistrust. If she is That Good A Violinist, say the musical purists, she wouldn't need the pouting, mini-skirted, semi-naked gimmicks. (Yehudi never did hot pants. Thank God. Although, that said, he might have made even me look passable in them.) She wouldn't, either, need to fuse pop and classical, as she does. However, she would say — and does — that this is just her style, and why not? "When I first started doing it at 15, 16, it was unheard of. But I wanted to break boundaries. It wasn't my goal to shock people. It was to bring the violin into a broader spectrum. Classical music is a small world. It's a museum art. I wanted to work with things that are alive." The real question, I think, is where does the marketing end and the music begin? Frankly — as musical as I am — I just don't know. Whatever, the posher critics have never been overly fond of her. She says she doesn't care. "Critics," she announces, "have never experienced giving people pleasure in their work."

Vanessa was born in Singapore in 1978, to Pamela, a lawyer and semi-professional pianist, and Vorapong Vanakorn, an English hotelier of Thai descent. Vanessa was playing the piano at three, and violin at seven. By this time, her parents had split, her mother had remarried wealthy corporate lawyer Graham Nicholson, and the family had come to London. It sounds like Vanessa had the most brilliantly indulged childhood. She was an only child. She thinks, when she was six or seven, her mother did get broody, but by this time Vanessa's talent was obvious, "and she had to chaperone me. It wouldn't have been fair to have another child". For whom? I forget to ask.

Little Vanessa was dressed in Pierre Cardin and Dior. There was the house in Kensington, plus the country one in Sussex. One of her most treasured possessions is "a 150-year-old children's hardback about music which my mother bought for me when I was little, because she saw me looking through it in fascination". She attended a private school on Sloane Street. When her parents gave dinner parties, and Vanessa wandered down in her nightie, she wasn't dispatched back to bed. "I was allowed to participate. And if they went to the theatre or ballet, I went, too."

The only thing that was denied her, it would seem, was horse riding because, when she was five, her piano teacher told her: "Honey, I don't want you to take risks with horses." Yet you ski, Vanessa? Yes, she says, but skiing is much less dangerous: a horse can bolt. "My mother was once riding in Hyde Park when her horse bolted and she ended up outside Harvey Nichols." I say it's a shame she didn't end up inside Harvey Nichols, at the Chanel counter. That would have been something.

At eight, Vanessa was the youngest pupil at the Central Conservatoire of Music in Peking, where she stayed for six months, accompanied by her mother, who had stopped being a lawyer to focus on her daughter. At 10, Vanessa gave her first concert. At 11, she was admitted to the Royal College of Music. She was pulled out of school at 14, to better fulfil her musical potential. Do you have friends, Vanessa? "Not so many." Did you ever rebel, Vanessa? Did you ever say: "Sod this violin lark. I'm going out to drink Merrydown and neck boys." No, she did not, she says. "I always spoke my own mind. If I didn't want to do something, I didn't do it. But I would weigh up the odds first. If there was a party, and I had to practice, I'd practice for an hour then go to the party. I think I got the best of both worlds."

I think she gave her first interview at 12. I have found the cutting. The copy is pretty anodyne. "My violin is my friend," she says. It's the photograph that gets you. It shows Vanessa in something cute and puff-sleeved, with a thick, pudding bowl haircut. "Plus I had braces on my teeth then," Vanessa volunteers. So, what happened? The braces came off, the hair-grew, EMI put you in a bikini and leather boots, and suddenly it was: "Why, Ms Mae, you are quite beautiful. Let's flog a few records here." From sweet kid to sex kitten, via an efficient marketing department? Is that what happened? Absolutely not, she protests. She says that first 1995 video for her souped up version of Bach's Toccata and Fugue — the one that showed her coming out of the sea in that transparent white dress — was not an exploitation of her burgeoning teenage sexuality. "It was my idea!," she cries. "We were in Ibiza. I like the sea... It was not lewd porno. "Do you consider yourself sexy? "I wouldn't be that arrogant."

There is this notion, of course, that you will always ultimately pay in later life for the super-abundant gifts of childhood. Mozart died in debt, and was buried as a pauper. Michael Jackson, deprived of his own childhood, now seems to be marooned in a bizarre Neverland of his own making. And don't get me started on Lena Zavaroni, the poor thing. I wonder, naturally, if this worries Vanessa. She insists it does not. Anyone can lose their way, she says. "You can start a career at 30, and lose your way. It can happen any time. It's just that, if you have precocious abilities as a child, more attention is focused on you."

I don't know if Vanessa will ever lose her way. She is fiercely ambitious, I think. I'd read somewhere that she was going to ease up on her commitments this year. Is she? Well, for the next five months she'll be recording an album, says the PR man, "but after that, we'll be full on again." Last year, it was 250 concerts in 35 cities. That doesn't sound impressive to me. That sounds grim. Does it get lonely? Here, she goes all existential. "We are born alone, and go alone. I've always had a sense of solitude. I've always had a feeling that I'm alone in a little capsule." Still, no mind. "This is helpful when you travel."

She has to go now. She has another interview to do with The Mirror at the Kensington Royal Garden Hotel, which is almost directly opposite the Milestone. She is lip-glossed by the make-up artists for her next appointment. Then the big, fat Jag returns to pick her up. I watch from the window. The car does an extravagant U-turn, and drops her over the road. I have been very out Jewish-princessed, I think.

Interview by Deborah Orr

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